The world of masks lends itself to photographing: masquerades, carnivals, strange rituals in which masked figures turn into monsters with enormous lips, huge eyes, multicolored skin, or twisted facial features. The devil or the grim reaper; gleefully sinister puppets sauntering down the street—this is the world depicted in one of Graciela Iturbide’s photographs. These figures are a familiar sight to the Mexican artist: in her country, people love playing with the image of death, wearing skeleton costumes, and dancing in the streets. This might be why masks appear so often in Graciela Iturbide’s work… For instance, one powerful image shows a woman wearing a bridal dress and a death’s-head mask. She is holding a bridal bouquet in her left hand, while her right extends the hem of her wedding veil as if inviting us to join in. The ghostly whiteness of the bride evokes the pallor of the recently deceased, and we wonder if we should fraternize with her or whether we should run and hide.
Hiding, concealment—this is precisely the purpose of the mask which hides the wearer’s face from our gaze. The mask may lend an uncanny feel to the disguise, as it does, for example, in the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s (1925–1972), perhaps the photographer who features masks in his images most frequently. Deformed heads sit on bodies strolling through dark gardens, frightful to behold. The images are uncanny, as something familiar—the classical human body—is wedded to something bizarre, grotesque—an impossible face.
The viewer gets a similar impression from a 1975 photograph by Arthur Tress. In it, a little girl in a dress climbs a staircase. Instead of a childish face, however, we see the mask of an old, bearded man. The mask belies the inner nature of its wearer. Suddenly, the child has no age or gender; she is a creature created ex nihilo; her figure may be frightening and unsettling.
Cindy Sherman also plays with a sense of the uncanny in an image representing a group of clowns. Their faces covered with paint, wearing big red noses, they cluster around the frame of the photograph like a few rough kids ganging up on the viewer, all deranged, spoiling for a fight. The mask thus represents momentary madness, signaling the breakdown of social conventions.
In the photographs by the Angolan artist Edson Chagas, the mask contrasts with the photographed subject who is wearing a corporate uniform. By using traditional African masks, Edson Chagas evokes animist cultures, which celebrate costumes, and the idea that a new face, created expressly for some ceremony, reflects the inner magic and drives self-transformation. The mask thus designates the persona we take on at a specific time, the role we provisionally agree to play.
Sometimes, it is one’s position in society that becomes a mask. Irving Penn (1917–2009) explored this idea at length in his photographs of women wearing various kinds of facemasks: beauty creams, cucumber slices, or makeup daintily applied with brushes onto the skin… Penn contemplates these altered, and often short-lived, faces, which represent transition between a before and an after, between a former self and a self made up for a special occasion. The absolute vanity of these ephemeral masks eloquently comments on women’s condition, social expectations, and the rituals of contemporary inhabitants of big cities in the West.
However, masks are not always this tender or sensuous. The contrary may be true, as Andres Serrano reminds us in his series Torture (2015). The artist draws both on current events—prisoner abuse by the American guards in Abu Ghraib in Iraq—as well as historical representations—specifically Goya’s somber etchings—to evoke the horrors of torture. His photographs include metal masks that torturers would put on their victims. Although empty, these masks speak of the pain inflicted by the tormentor, hinting at the contour of a body seared by acts of physical or mental torture.
Despite its more sinister associations, the mask is, most often than not, as a photograph by Alex Webb shows, a ray of sunshine in a world filled with darkness. The photograph represents two disillusioned youngsters posing in a street front of a middle-aged man passed out on the pavement. The faces of both boys are covered with bright-colored paint which contrasts with the rest of the image. Even amid poverty, there is room for imagination: perhaps a party had just come to an end, having brought some reprieve to this distressed neighborhood.
The series of children’s photographs taken by Helen Levitt in 1940s New York creates a similar impression. The photographer has captured various masks worn by kids playing in an impoverished area of the city. The mask here is a springboard for the imagination, transporting the children beyond poverty and turning them into kings and queens. Rain or shine, the mask provokes laughter, as if one could change one’s identity at will, wear a face that pleases or frightens, transform us, and, having done so, help us to reinvent ourselves.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Thanks to: Edson Chagas, Graciela Iturbide, Andres Serrano and Arthur Tress.